My first international conference: Presenting at The British Society for Geomorphology

Post contributed by Niamh Cullen

Last September I attended the British Society for Geomorphology (BSG) Annual Meeting in Plymouth University. It was my first opportunity to present my PhD research at an international conference and also a great opportunity to catch up with people I met at the BSG Windsor Workshop in my first year as a PhD student (has it been 3 years already?).

plymouth_barbicanFigure 1. The beautiful Barbican harbour area in Plymouth.                                                Photo credit:

It started with a bus, plane, bus, train, followed by a short walk to the University of Plymouth. Long journey notwithstanding, if you haven’t been to Plymouth it’s worth a trip, if only to walk around the barbican harbour area (figure 1.) and visit the incredible aquarium (more about that later).Although the long journey meant that I arrived towards the end of the first day of the conference, I managed to catch the last speaker of the day Professor Jim Frost who told ‘Tales of an Itinerant Geomorphologist’.

I was presenting at 11am the next morning so I chose to forego the evening drinks reception to go make some last minute adjustments for the next day. Being a somewhat nervous presenter I find that it helps to practice, practice, practice, and then, practice a bit more. This ensures that any nerves on the day are related to standing on a podium at the front of a large conference room presenting to the world’s best and brightest and not the fear of forgetting what it is I’m supposed to be saying.

The conference presentations started at 8:30am (yes really) the following day. Thankfully there was plenty of coffee available. After some very interesting presentations by award winning invited speakers and another coffee break (accompanied by an assortment of delicious cakes and biscuits which I was far too nervous to eat) it was my turn. The room seemed to have filled up a lot since the morning session. I have been told that I speak too fast when I present and this was confirmed when, despite a conscious effort to speak slowly, my 15 minute presentation was done in 12 minutes flat, leaving plenty of time for questions.

One of the questions brought up the issue of scale in geomorphology. I had presented the findings of recent field work where we documented and estimated the volume of material eroded from the platform by the transport of boulders eroded from the cliff and platform during recent storms. During the storms numerous boulders were rolled, dragged and saltated across the platform by waves and gravity leaving behind distinct abrasion trails. We call these Boulder Abrasion Trails or BATs for short.  These BATs have been observed by numerous researchers however “the contribution to platform downwearing has not been measured” (Moses, pp. 46, 2014). We documented these trails and devised a method to calculate the volume of material eroded via this process (abrasion by boulder transport) which, as far as we know, was the first time this had been done. As it happens, the total volume of material was small relative to the likely volume of the responsible boulders, although it is worth pointing out that the abrasion occurred over a relatively short period of time i.e. during a storm. The question posed related to the importance of this process when compared to erosion of platform and cliff via other processes e.g. mass movements from the cliff and plucking/quarrying of material from the platform?

It is true that the volume of material removed via BATs is relatively small when compared to the likely volume of the boulders responsible. However, this is the first time that abrasion by boulder transport during storms has been measured so that in itself is a step forward for our understanding of rock coast erosion. Second, geomorphological processes operate and interact across a range of spatial and temporal scales. The influence of small scale processes are just as important as those of large scale on landform development at geomorphological timescales, even if their effects are not immediately apparent. For example, almost imperceptible expansion and contraction of rock due to changes in temperature may not be immediately obvious but can over time, play a critical role in preparing rock slopes for large failures. So, while the importance of abrasion by boulder transport during storms may not be significant  over human timescales, it is a process that contributes to the long term rate of platform erosion and has implications for our understanding and modelling of rock coast evolution. The question highlighted a longstanding issue which geomorphologists are constantly seeking to address, that of scale issues in geomorphology. See this excellent special issue edited by P.A. Warke, J.M. McKinley in the journal Geomorphology for more on this.

Presentation over it was time to sit back, relax and enjoy hearing about the phenomenal research being carried out by other BSG members. Of particular note was an enthralling presentation given by the BSG’s Gordon Warwick Award winner Doug Jerolmack for excellence in geomorphological research. The talk entitled ‘Creepy Landscapes of Glass’ demonstrated how creeping of hillslope sediments was similar to creeping of bed-loads in rivers and that the transition from creep to landsliding is a continuous phase transition characteristic of glass. A truly memorable presentation which managed to get most of the room very excited about very slow moving soil!

After hearing about so much great research, at 6pm it was time for a quick rest back at the accommodation and then off to the conference dinner. After the 2015 conference dinner, held on a boat cruising around the Southampton Harbour area, the pressure was on for conference organisers to provide an equally amazing setting. They did not disappoint. The dinner was held in the main hall of the Plymouth Aquarium. The backdrop for the awards ceremony was a HUGE fish tank replete with hundreds of fish and a few sharks (Figure 2).

plymouth_aquariumFigure 2. The gargantuan fish tank in Plymouths Aquarium where the awards ceremony and conference dinner were held.

I managed to find myself a seat among some very friendly PhD students.  Following the annual awards ceremony it was dinner time. Cue obligatory goat’s cheese tart for the vegetarians (yum).

The night, well mine anyway, ended at one of the bars in the stunning barbican area a short walk from the Aquarium and as it happens, my accommodation.

A full day was scheduled for the following day however my long journey home started at 10am so unfortunately I missed many of the presentations. A farewell tweet and thank you to the BSG and the conference organisers finished off what was a great trip. The BSG Annual Meeting is must on any geomorphologist’s calendar. Looking forward to Hull 2017!

Cullen, N., Bourke, M.C., (2016). The geomorphic effect of recent storms – Quantifying meso scale abrasion across a shore platform. British Society for Geomorphology Annual Meeting, Plymouth.


This entry was posted in Conference. Bookmark the permalink.